CHEYENNE — Starting Tuesday, Wyoming Republicans will hold their county conventions — the first of two phases in which the state party picks its presidential delegates.
So far, GOP officials around the state say it appears to be a wide-open race for delegates between the two frontrunners for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, as well as the other two major candidates, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich.
And enthusiasm is high, they said, as the Republican faithful look forward to November, when they’ll get their long-awaited chance to kick President Obama out of the White House.
Unlike most other states, which hold a presidential primary or caucus on a single day, Wyoming Republicans select most of their 29 presidential delegates through a complex series of caucuses and conventions spread out over several weeks.
During county conventions, scheduled for March 6-10, 12 counties will pick delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in August. The remaining counties will choose alternate delegates; Laramie County, under party bylaws, gets to pick both a delegate and an alternate.
Fourteen more delegates will be chosen at-large during the state Republican Convention next month in Cheyenne.
The remaining three delegates, automatically appointed under party rules, will be national committeeman Greg Schaefer, national committeewoman Jan Larimer and state GOP Chairwoman Tammy Hooper.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor with strong ties to neighboring Utah, won eight of the 12 county delegates during the 2008 GOP caucuses.
But it remains to be seen if Romney can score a victory like that again this year. For one thing, every country that elected a delegate in 2008, except for Laramie County, will now only be able to pick an alternate this year.
And while Romney won a non-binding straw poll held during last month’s GOP precinct caucuses with 39 percent of the vote, Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, received 32 percent.
Gingrich, a former U.S. House Speaker from Georgia, received 21 percent of the straw poll vote; Paul, a Texas congressman, got 8 percent.
Of the 12 counties that elect delegates this year, Romney won the straw poll in five counties, Santorum won four, and Paul won three.
But state GOP officials and political observers emphasized that the straw poll isn’t a reliable indicator of how the state’s presidential delegates will be divided up.
Half of each county’s convention delegates are made up of precinct committeepeople who may or may not have voted in the straw poll. The other half were elected during last month’s precinct caucuses without pledging themselves to a presidential candidate.
“I don’t think anything’s sewn up yet,” Hooper said.
To date, Romney’s the only candidate who has set up a significant campaign organization in the state. The campaign has set up grassroots efforts in all 23 counties to maximize pro-Romney turnout at next week’s county conventions and to win over any delegates who may be still on the fence, said Romney state advisory committee member Bill Novotny.
“We feel fantastic about the position that Governor Romney is in,” Novotny said.
University of Wyoming political science professor Jim King said Romney will probably emerge with the most delegates, given his landslide victory in the 2008 caucuses.
“But we’re not talking a blowout here,” he said.
While Santorum and the other candidates haven’t been actively organizing in Wyoming, King said, they may not need to. Wyoming Republicans, he noted, have had months of wall-to-wall media coverage and 20 televised primary debates in other states to help them make up their minds on which candidate to support.
“It’s the type of campaigning where the local organization is not as important as it’s been in previous years,” King said.
If the Republican primary race remains close, Wyoming could make an impact on who the Republican presidential nominee is.
This year, Wyoming has 29 presidential delegates — two more than Iowa, and just one less than Michigan, which was docked half of its delegates this year for holding its primary on Feb. 14, earlier than national GOP rules permit.
And with the race for the 2012 Republican nomination still open, those delegates are highly in demand, King said.
“Clearly the fact that the Republicans still have an active contest makes the Wyoming caucus more important than they have in past years,” he said.
It’s a stark contrast to four years ago, when the state GOP moved their caucuses up to Jan. 5 to increase Wyoming’s importance in the primary process and lure more candidates to the state. Those dreams largely didn’t come to pass, and the Republican National Committee — like Michigan this year — disqualified half of Wyoming’s delegates to the 2008 Republican National Convention.
Even with full representation this year, several GOP observers said that Wyoming’s delegate selection process is so drawn out, presidential campaigns don’t feel it’s worthwhile to invest their candidate’s time or money in targeting a few hundred county convention delegates in 12 counties scattered across the 10th-largest state, geographically, in the country.
“They’re not going come in spending money for 500 voters,” said Joe Milczewski, who ran Republican Colin Simpson’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 2010 and is running for national delegate in Laramie County this year as a Gingrich supporter.
Milczewski also questioned the wisdom of a process in which 11 counties — including Teton, Campbell and Sheridan — only get to pick an alternate delegate this year.
“As people start to understand the process, I’m hearing a lot more questions of, ‘Why would we do this in such a stupid way?’” he said.
But county Republican chairpeople in several of those excluded counties said they haven’t heard any such grumbling.
Campbell County GOP Chairman David Horning said most Republicans in his county know that they’ll get to elect a national delegate again in 2016.
Indeed, Horning and other Republicans across the state said they’re seeing a sharp increase in enthusiasm within their party as they gear up to try and unseat Obama.
At the Campbell County precinct caucuses two weeks ago, Horning said, a show of hands revealed about half the participants were caucusing for the first time ever.
“Being Wyoming, I think this is a state where you can participate just by showing up and being willing,” Horning said. “It’s a pretty special thing to be able to do that.”